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York students compete in global biology competition

Posted on 4 June 2015

Science undergraduates from the University of York will compete at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston.

iGEM is an international synthetic biology contest that aims to produce novel ideas for potential use in real-world challenges. Given a toolkit of biological parts (‘biobricks’), students are asked to create a biological system to operate in a living cell.  

This year a team of 14 York science students, from Departments including Biology, Chemistry and Computer Science, will compete in the undergraduate division of iGEM. Their project idea is to engineer bacteria that could be used to remove phosphate from waste water – an alternative to chemical phosphate removal. Bio-remediating water from metal and phosphate pollution will allow the recycling of minerals, and is an issue that local water boards and treatment companies are targeting.

Secondly, York’s iGEM team hopes to design bacteria that will target and extract precious metals in wastewater. With predictions that there may be increased metal concentrations in waste water in the future, potentially recovering elements such as silver, copper, gold and iron would have economic benefits.

Working over the summer to research and develop such bacteria, the York team will present their findings at iGEM’s Giant Jamboree at MIT in Boston, USA, on September 24-28 2015.

Abigail Rowbotham, a first year Biology undergraduate at York and member of the iGEM team, said: “Back in 2013, York’s iGEM team obtained a gold medal and we plan to repeat our success with the 2015 team. Competing will be a fantastic opportunity to apply what we learn in our courses to actual real life problems, expand our skill sets and work with people on an international scale.”

Junhee Jung, a first year Biology undergraduate and fellow iGEM team member, added: “Our hope for a gold medal for our project is something we strongly believe we can achieve. Taking part in the competition benefits a range of people, from the participants who will gain experience in designing and carrying out an experiment before communicating it to the public, to the wider community for providing an accurate view on genetic engineering of organisms.”

Students will be supported with guidance from academic staff including Dr James Chong, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biology, Dr Gavin Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Microbiology, Professor Maggie Smith, Department of Biology, Dr Alison Parkin, Anniversary Research Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, and Dr Steve Johnson, Lecturer in the Department of Electronics.

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